Appellate Judge Dan Mancini thinks it's about time Louis Malle got the Criterion treatment.
Our reviews of Au Revoir Les Enfants (Blu-Ray) Criterion Collection (published March 3rd, 2011), Au Revoir Les Enfants: Criterion Collection (published March 28th, 2006), Lacombe, Lucien: Criterion Collection (published March 28th, 2006), and Murmur Of The Heart: Criterion Collection (published March 28th, 2006) are also available.
"You must find the note, the correct key, for your story. If you find it, everything will work. If you do not, everything will stick out like elbows."—Louis Malle
Perhaps more than any other director, Louis Malle is ripe for a critical reassessment. His films and career have been criminally underrated by the French because he's an oddball. As a filmmaker, Malle existed in two worlds: one of French independence, the other of American gloss. A postwar director who doesn't belong to the school of the New Wave, Malle had the audacity to cross the Atlantic and find success in Hollywood with films like Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, Damage, and Vanya on 42nd Street. Yet he also made films like Zazie dans le Métro, The Thief, May Fools, and the three pictures included in this boxed set, all vibrant with the independent spirit of French cinema. Malle and his work aren't easily categorized.
With any luck, this excellent release by Criterion will prompt critics to take a second look at Malle. It contains three of his French-language films: Murmur of the Heart, Lacombe, Lucien, and Au Revoir les Enfants. Each deals in one way or another with one of Malle's favorite subjects: the rocky and painful transition from adolescence to adulthood. Two of the three are set in World War II, the backdrop for Malle's own challenging coming of age. Viewed together, they offer the Malle neophyte a great crash course in the director's thematic obsessions and cinematic technique.
Facts of the Case
The three films contained in this boxed set are:
• Murmur of the Heart (1971)
More than any of this sexual exploration, though, it is Laurent's discovery that his mother is having an affair that begins to draw his childhood to a close. When he is diagnosed with a heart murmur, he and mommy retreat to a countryside spa. Because of a booking mix-up, the duo must share a room. In this cloistered environment, Laurent begins to come to grips with his mother's dalliances. And one night, after hearty Bastille Day revelry, the duo find an odd comfort in each other's arms—and Laurent takes his final step into manhood.
• Lacombe, Lucien (1974)
Eventually, Lucien meets France Horn (Aurore Clément, Apocalypse Now Redux). She is the daughter of Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler, I Am Curious (Yellow)), a Jewish tailor who was enormously successful in Paris before having to go into hiding. As the couple's affection for one another grows and they plan marriage, Albert is pushed to the end of his rope. But when French Jews are among those rounded up to be sent to a concentration camp, Lucien is left with a difficult choice.
• Au Revoir Les Infants (1987)
Julien eventually discovers that Bonnet is a Jew named Jean Kippelstein. His mother is missing, and his father is in a concentration camp. When an odd-jobber at the school is fired for selling the boys cigarettes, he betrays Père Jean's harboring of Jews. The Gestapo comes looking for Kippelstein. A furtive glance from Julien gives away Bonnet's true identity, bringing the boys' friendship to a tragic end.
Though Louis Malle had been directing feature films for thirteen years (fifteen if you count his co-director credit on Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World) when he made Murmur of the Heart (Le Souffle au coeur), it still feels like a debut feature. In a sense, it is. Malle's career predates the New Wave. His earliest works are tidy and technically precise. All of that changed when he packed off to India to make a free-form film whose structure and content would be a mystery until he actually got down to the work of shooting it. He came away from this exotic and daring experiment with the feature Calcutta (1969) and a television series called Phantom India (broadcast the same year). More than that, though, he came away with a reinvigorated approach to making films.
Murmur of the Heart inaugurated a new phase in Malle's career. The picture is a bildungsroman, but that's not the only thing that makes it feel like a shockingly potent debut—as a matter of fact, it's not even the primary thing. Murmur overflows with an exuberant love of both craft and subject matter typically found in the work of a young artist flexing his muscles. It has the same precise attention to detail and precocious energy one sees in Truffaut's The 400 Blows or Godard's Breathless or Welles's Citizen Kane.
A plot description of Murmur of the Heart can't possibly do the film justice. Like many coming of age films, it is a series of vignettes that are unrelated except for the way they propel the protagonist toward epiphany. Tone and texture are more important than structure (that's the way it appears on the surface, at least). And Malle's film is full of great texture from dinner table discussions of France's problems in Indochina, to references to The Barefoot Contessa and Goethe's The Erlking, to a soundtrack that bristles with the be-bop of Parker and Gillespie, and swings with Sidney Bechet's New Orleans-flavored clarinet. Exuberant, bawdy humor abounds, too. In one scene the Chevaliers' Italian maid Augusta (Ave Ninchi, To Live in Peace) catches the boys measuring their penises. The result is a riotous free-for-all. In another, Thomas harangues Laurent as he tries to masturbate. In yet another, anarchy invades dinner as Marc and Thomas play "spinach tennis."
On first blush, these vignettes appear disconnected from one another except in the way they reveal the details of Laurent's day-to-day life. But Malle is slyly compelling us toward the picture's eyebrow-raising finale. We see early on that Clara Chevalier behaves more like an older sibling to her boys than a mother—especially Laurent, whom she dotes over and affectionately refers to as Renzino. In one scene, Marc and Thomas steal money from her purse. Clara's anger is a show, dissolving into the ether as she playfully chases the scamps about the apartment. Papa Chevalier is an adult (albeit a rather clueless one), but Mama is a child, just as subject to her whims and emotions as the household's three adolescents. Her affair—which is revealed to us at the same moment it is to Laurent, looking out a window down to the street outside as she climbs happily into a car with a man we've never seen before—is disappointing in that it's an emotional blow to Laurent, but it isn't surprising. This woman is too immature to be cognizant of duty or the feelings of others.
The eyebrow-raising finale involves an act of incest: A brief and delicately-handled sexual union between Laurent and Clara during their stay at the cloistered netherworld of the spa. In his essay found in the insert booklet for this DVD release, critic Michael Stragow argues that the act flows so naturally from the characters that it isn't disturbing in the least. I think he's half right. The union is a logical terminal point for the paths each character has traveled over the course of the film's two hours. It's also a perfect poetic crux on which childhood ends and adulthood begins for Laurent. It remains, however, as uncomfortable as a moment of mother-son incest is apt to be, regardless of how we intellectualize it. And that's as it should be, as Malle intended.
"When we are young, the Oedipus complex thing is like a joke," Malle told film critic Roger Ebert in an interview conducted in 1972. "It takes years to discover that it is real, that there is a dream ideal, an initiating mother, in our subconscious. The movie is about that sort of childlike dream." The quote explains why the scene is absent prurience or tawdry thrills. The spa is a kind of dream world, a limbo space between Laurent's childhood world and the world of adults on whose threshold he stands. Malle's construction of this symbol is so precise that it feels naturalistic, yet succeeds in diffusing the scandal of the incest. Our natural cringing at the idea of sexual contact between parent and child is diverted by Malle into a visceral identification with Laurent's physical, emotional, intellectual, and sexual epiphany. We feel as though the boy's childhood, his innocence, dies in the contact with Clara. The union between them is no union at all, but a final separation. It isn't grotesque, nor is it sexy; it's melancholy, yet somehow inevitable. The symbolic resonance of the scene saps much of the ick-factor found in a literal reading. And we're left with a very real sense of the finality with which Laurent has crossed the threshold into adulthood.
Malle followed Murmur of the Heart with Human, Too Human—a documentary about the happenings in a Citroën factory—but Lacombe, Lucien is the true continuation of the character exploration he began in Murmur. Though it is often cited as one of the first films to deal head-on with French collaboration during World War II, Lacombe, Lucien also has firm footing in the tradition of Malle films that examine a character's rocky transition from childhood to adulthood. Unfortunately, a lackluster finale leaves the picture unbalanced, resolving the war story well enough but failing to deliver the epiphany toward which its protagonist has been steadily progressing. A powerful film, Lacombe, Lucien is still the weakest offering in this boxed set.
In the opening scene of Lacombe, Lucien, Louis Malle shows us that Lucien has a cruel streak. We watch him slingshot a bird from the window of the nursing home at which he does menial jobs. As a matter of fact, the entire first act of the picture is loaded with death. Lacombe hunts hares with a rifle, and we watch as he delivers death blows in graphic detail. Breaking a chicken's neck so it can be plucked for the dinner pot, he decapitates it and its blood spills to the ground as its body still twitches. The boy helps the men of his family's farm drag a dying horse roughly onto a cart so that it can be shipped off to a glue factory, or wherever dying horses were shipped in provincial France during the war. All of these activities—gruesome and difficult to watch—are the duties and pastimes of boys living on farms. That Lucien deals such death isn't what disturbs; it's the joy that lights in his usually emotionless eyes while killing that leaves us cold. He carries out these duties with a verve absent in any other aspect of his life (the interlude with the horse is the only one of these scenes in which we see an ounce of compassion from Lucien). This cruelty and killing leaves us with a fundamental question that Malle, quite purposely, doesn't answer by film's end: Is there something congenitally wrong with Lucien, some flaw in his soul, that makes him ripe for the picking of the Gestapo?
The other possibility is more terrifying. Perhaps Lucien is a boy like any other. Perhaps we each have a secret fascination with death and, therefore, the capacity to slide bit by bit into evil. Lucien's innocence is a vital component of the picture. Not yet an adult, he is apolitical. As in La Sequenza del Fiore di Carta and L'amore, the short films by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean Luc Godard that comprise half of the French-Italian anthology picture, Love and Anger, Malle draws a striking correlation between innocence and corruption in a world charged by political extremes: Neutrality is impossible when Nazis are on the march. Rejected by the Resistance for his lack of seriousness (read: innocence), Lucien's succumbing to the lure of the Gestapo seems inevitable because his simple life on the family farm is no longer possible—war abhors an ideological vacuum.
He's too young and too foolish to see the decadent life of the Nazi police and French collaborators as anything but romantic. But we know better. The picture is set in June of 1944. In one scene, the collaborators gather around a radio at the hotel where they congregate and commiserate. They listen to Vichy news reports of American cowardice on the shores of Normandy. We know the reports are lies. We also know that the consequences of the choices Lucien and his compatriots now make loom in the very near future, and that they will be severe. In the meantime, we watch Lucien grow increasingly drunk on the power the Gestapo gives him, watch in horror as he becomes more and more cruel. Eventually, abusing human beings is no different to him than shooting hares or breaking the necks of chickens.
The character with whom we most identify is Albert Horn. He's haunted by both the folly and terror of the boy's choices. And he's devastated by Lucien's sexual pursuit of his daughter, who herself is too naïve not to fall in love with the farm boy. We share Horn's pity and dread of Lucien. Like him, we can't like Lacombe, but we also can't quite bring ourselves to hate him. That retribution is doled out to Lucien off-screen, after the credits have rolled, is both a relief and a disappointment. On the one hand, we pity the boy too much to relish his punishment; on the other, his arrest is an integral part of his development as a character, the tragic moment at which he moves finally from adolescence to adulthood. Not witnessing it leaves us empty.
The disappointment of Lacombe, Lucien's ending amounts to a minor quibble, though, within the full context of 3 Film by Louis Malle. The boxed set saves the best film for last. Au Revoir les Enfants's production is separated from Murmur's and Lacombe's by more than a decade. It was made after Malle's initial excursion into American filmmaking fizzled. Impressive Hollywood outings like Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, and the picture that came to define art film stasis, My Dinner with Andre, dissolved into back-to-back duds: Crackers starring Donald Sutherland and Sean Penn, and the Vietnam vet retread, Alamo Bay. Malle's desire for mainstream Hollywood success, it seemed, had finally drained him of creative spark. His confidence shattered, the director returned to the familiar territory of his own childhood for inspiration and came away with his masterpiece.
Shortly after Julien Quentin discovers that Jean Bonnet is a Jew, he asks his older brother what a Jew is. "Someone who doesn't eat pork," answers François. It is a child's answer, but one that somehow cuts to the conceptual absurdity of genocide: Do adults truly murder each other over something as inconsequential as race? Nonplussed, Julien asks why the Jews are so hated. "They're smarter than us," François responds, "and they killed Jesus." Bonnet, it turns out, is definitely smarter than Julien…and more sensitive and world-weary. We recognize this immediately even though the film is told from Julien's perspective, a boy so traumatized by the war and separation from his doting mother that he's become a bed-wetter.
Like Murmur of the Heart, Au Revoir les Enfants is a loosely autobiographical work by Malle. And like the earlier film, it takes the director's own emotional experiences as an adolescent and conflates them into drama. Julien isn't responsible for the Gestapo's capture of Kippelstein—"They would have found me, anyway," Jean tells him during their last moments together. But Julien's betraying glance is undoubtedly a dramatic manifestation of Malle's own survivor's guilt. The frequency with which the director returns to the subject of World War II in his films is indication of the psychological trauma he experienced as a powerless child in occupied France, faced with the enormous guilt of seeing atrocities like the round-up of Jews.
In terms of narrative structure, Au Revoir les Enfants is a simple film, told from a child's perspective (Lucien is 12 years old). The events depicted are straight-forward, but also keenly observed. Despite the deprivations at the boarding school, the boys find much joy in each other's company. They rough-house on stilts in the cold courtyard outside the school. They swap contraband jellies and candies procured from their doting mothers. They jokingly refer to the brothers who run the school as "monkeys." In one terrific sequence reminiscent of the puppet show in Truffaut's The 400 Blows, the boys watch a Charlie Chaplin short. The camera drinks in their faces as they smile and laugh. It's pure, beautiful naturalism, made poignant by the context of Nazis and war.
The movie's structural simplicity leaves plenty of space for its emotional complexity. And it most certainly is an emotionally potent little flick. Malle's carefully constructed scenes of light-comic naturalism are punctuated by gut-wrenching tragedy that relies not a whit on sentimentality. Of particular note is a sequence in which an old Jewish gentleman, eating alone, is harassed in a restaurant by collaborator thugs—Lucien's mother's defense of the man is a small gesture, but touching. Another scene in which Jean and Lucien are lost in the woods outside the boarding school while playing a game, only to be picked up by patrolling Gestapo, is particularly suspenseful. But the film's finale is, of course, its pièce de résistance, a deeply disheartening moment of defeat and disappointment, both for Julien and for the film's audience. The Gestapo's discovery and arrest of Jean Kippelstein represents Julien's premature loss of childhood innocence. Our hearts break for him.
It is Kippelstein, though, whom we truly morn. As in Lacombe, Lucien, Malle has set the picture in 1944, on the cusp of France's liberation from German occupation. We know, just as the adult Julien who narrates the film's final seconds does (it is Malle's own voice), that had Jean Kippelstein managed to stay hidden for just a few more months, he would have survived the war. We, like Julien (and Malle), keenly feel the needless, tragic loss of the boy's bright wit and kind soul.
It has become de rigueur for critics to heap praise on DVDs released by The Criterion Collection. But the 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers of the three films in this boxed set are stunning even by Criterion's standards. Murmur of the Heart was sourced from the 35mm interpositive and internegative, and digitally restored. The process was supervised by director of photography Ricardo Aronovich (Missing). Lacombe, Lucien comes to us by way of its 35mm interpositive, also digitally restored. The much more recent Au Revoir les Enfants was transferred from the original camera negative. Again, Criterion went to the movie's director of photography, Renato Berta, to supervise the process. Each of the pictures is pristine. Colors are perfectly rendered. Detail is excellent. The overall look is of celluloid, not video. Surprisingly, the two older films look just as stunning as the one shot in the late '80s.
The pictures' analogue mono soundtracks have also been digitally restored. They are presented in a single-channel Dolby Digital mix that places all dialogue and ambient sound in a surround system's center speaker. The tracks are clean, bright, and beautiful. Lacombe, Lucien's is slightly inferior to the other films' due to some distortion around sibilant dialogue, but only slightly.
Each of the films is available as an individual release, with only trailers and scholarly essays as supplements. I don't know why anyone would buy them that way, though, when this boxed set is available for a significantly lower cost than the combined total for buying each of the stand-alone releases. Beyond frugality, the boxed set also offers the bonus of a fourth disc loaded with supplements. Let's take a look:
Disc Four: The Supplements
• Interview with Candice Bergen (13:32)
• Pour le cinéma on Murmur of the Heart
• Pour le cinéma on On Lacombe, Lucien
• Louis Malle at AFI (53:06)
• Louis Malle at the National Film Theater (92:33)
Disc Four's supplements are rounded out with the Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (viewed by the boys in Au Revoir les Enfants), and a character profile of the spiteful Joseph (Au Revoir's above-mentioned odd-jobber mentioned) by filmmaker Guy Magen.
The Criterion Collection has done Louis Malle long-overdue justice with this beautiful release of three of his best films. Let's hope it generates more interest in (and prompts more DVD releases from) this criminally neglected director's body of work.
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Scales of Justice, Murmur Of The Heart
Perp Profile, Murmur Of The Heart
Distinguishing Marks, Murmur Of The Heart
• Original Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, Lacombe, Lucien
Perp Profile, Lacombe, Lucien
Distinguishing Marks, Lacombe, Lucien
• Original Theatrical Trailer
Scales of Justice, Au Revoir Les Enfants
Perp Profile, Au Revoir Les Enfants
Distinguishing Marks, Au Revoir Les Enfants
• Original Theatrical Trailer and Teaser
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